By Honore de Balzac
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I always have the same experience when I read Balzac.
I love Balzac – I think he’s brilliant. His best books (‘Pere Goriot’, ‘Cousin Bette’) are masterpieces of cynical observation, of moral punishment. He is bleak and unforgiving and magnificent – I really admire him.
However, even knowing his excellence as I do, I always struggle when I begin a new Balzac book. The first thing that always strikes me, strikes me like a blow in the face, is how extremely French he is. French, but not in a good way.
I’m not here to trade in French stereotypes, as much as I may love them. But national literatures have a national character. That can, of course, work to national advantage: often, our literatures represent our best traits. Think of the linguistic precision of English novels, the garrulous descriptiveness of Irish novelists. Think of Garcia Marquez’s lyrical romanticism, or Mann’s unflinching existential anguish: these are national authors who embody their national characters to the strength of the art. For god’s sake, who else but a Russian could have written ‘Crime and Punishment’?
But, of course, our national characters are also sources of global derision. No American who has ever covered their face in a restaurant abroad while listening to their countrymen shout, inexplicably, at wait staff in English could fail to understand this. Often, we turn out to be exactly who the rest of the world expect us to be.
Of course, it’s not that all French people are fruity and histrionic. Obviously not: it’s a stereotype. But, like the Americans shouting in restaurants, it’s a stereotype for a reason. French authors are often, well, pretty French. Sometimes it’s glorious, and sometimes its arduous. And sometimes, as with Balzac, it’s both.
‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ is an epistolary novel about the relationship between two young women who met at a convent. Louise and Renee are two French noblewomen living in France. Civil laws passed during the Napoleonic era required French nobility to divide their estates equally among their children, instead of leaving the entirety to the eldest son. In effect, this would have meant the division and dilution of great estates over several generations, and, to avoid that, parents often put their otherwise marriageable daughters into convents, where they were not eligible to inherit.
Eventually, Renee and Louise’ families find it politically expedient to remove their daughters from the convent. It is at this point that the novel begins, as the two women, separated from each other for the first time in eight years, write letters describing their now disparate lives. Renee moves to the country, where she is shortly married off to a loyal husband whom she does not love, but with whom she will have several cherished children.
Louise, on the other hand, moves to Paris, where she achieves brilliant social success and eventually seduces and marries a dispossessed Spanish nobleman. Two very different lives: one devoted to love, passion, social success; the other, to duty and to family.
If that sounds like a fairly pedestrian morality play to you, you would be right. I’ll be honest: ‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ isn’t Balzac’s best. If I’m being completely honest, I think it was pretty bad, actually. There are no moral surprises here, nor subtleties. Everything goes exactly as expected; the story is heavy-handed, lame, animated by not one spark of complexity. The two women are as unappetizing a pair of protagonists as I have ever encountered.
And the prose, yikes. It may be that prose construction in this novel is, in French, very beautiful. I try not to judge prose in translation – you just never know. But it is very difficult to imagine how these paragraphs might have been other than garbage, in any language:
“Ever since that morning when you smiled like a noble girl on discovering the misery of my lonely, wronged heart, I placed you on a throne: you are the absolute ruler of my life, the queen of my thoughts, the divinity of my heart, the light that shines in my rooms, the flower of my flowers, the perfume of the air I breathe, the richness of my blood, the glow in which I sleep. That happiness was troubled by one single thought. You did not know you had a boundless devotion to serve you, a loyal arm, a blind slave, a mute agent, a treasury, for I am now only the caretaker of all that is mine; you did not realize, in other words, that you owned a heart in which you may always confide.” (p. 81)
“That darkness was soon brightened by a sensation whose pleasure surpassed that of my child’s first cry. My heart, my soul, my being, an unknown me came into life in its once gray, aching shell, just as a flower erupts from its seed on hearing the shining call of the sun. The little monster took my breast and sucked, and with that, fiat lux!, suddenly I was a mother…There is inexpressible love in his lips, and when they cling to it, they cause a pain and a pleasure at once, a pleasure so strong as to be pain, or a pain that becomes a pleasure…Oh! Louise, no lover’s caress can rival those little pink hands gently roaming over us, clinging to life.” (p. 145)
This one, above, goes on for pages like this, by the way. About how breast-feeding is the highest sensual pleasure a woman can possible experience. Pages.
“To find in a man a mysterious harmony between what he seems and what he is, to find a man who in the secret life of marriage displays the kind of innate grace that cannot be given, that cannot be learned, that the ancient sculptors deployed in the chaste and voluptuous marriages of of their statues, the innocent abandon that the ancient poets put into their verse, and which seems to find in nakedness still another adornment for the soul, the ideal that springs from us and derives from the world of harmonies, which is no doubt the genius of all things, that immense problem pondered by every woman’s imagination – well, Gaston is its living solution.” (p. 215)
The whole novel is like that. Seriously. It’s overwrought and exhausting and, when, eventually, one of our young wives wanders into a lake on purpose to contract consumption on purpose in order to die of her broken heart on purpose, well, it’s honestly a relief.
Part of the problem may be that Balzac won’t say anything in five words if he can say it in five hundred. Part of the problem is that, in this novel, nothing is ordinary and fine; it is only transcendent or tragic. It is these traits that, unfortunately, resonate with Frenchness to unfortunate effect. The incessant purple-prosed fruitiness; the self-serious melodrama: to read ‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ is to feel yourself battered with French stereotype. I’m surprised the French haven’t had it banned, given how much it plays into their worst reputations.
But the biggest part of the problem is that Balzac, for all his imaginative prowess, doesn’t seem to be able, at least in this case, to imagine the world as seen through the eyes of a sheltered young woman. Though he has an otherwise stellar mind, he is apparently completely unable to imagine that women might care about anything other than their husbands, their babies, and the envy of other women.
So, no, between the pedantry, the grim assessment of my gender, and the absolutely mind-numbing French prose, it’s safe to say that I did not enjoy this novel. Though I love Balzac, I simply endured this one.
Luckily, it’s short.